On August 15 2020, four days after Joe Biden announced that former California attorney general Kamala Harris would be his running mate in the upcoming presidential election, the following images began circulating — purportedly showing Biden and Harris celebrating their newly-announced ticket at a rally with no masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One such post included three images of a crowded Biden rally at which Harris was present. No one — not the politicians present, nor the tightly-packed supporters — wore a mask.
In an August 15 2020 post, the account claimed that the images showed “Biden making the announcement of his Running Mate”:
Look at these Photos of Biden making the announcement of his Running Mate. All these Democrats gathering, No Masks, No Social Distancing. It’s obvious Democrats don’t practice what they’re feeding the rest of the American People.
The implication was clear — Democrats vocally criticized U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, for his refusal to wear masks, but maintained no such requirement at rallies after Harris’ presence on Biden’s ticket was announced.
Harris was acknowledged as Biden’s selection for Vice President on August 11 2020, concluding speculation about Biden’s running mate:
Joe Biden has selected Kamala Harris to be his running mate, elevating a charismatic blue-state senator, former prosecutor and onetime 2020 primary rival who has built a reputation as an unyielding antagonist of the Trump administration.
Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, was the wire-to-wire frontrunner for Biden’s No. 2 job. Her experience as a battle-tested presidential candidate, her efforts leading major law enforcement offices and her political track record of three election wins in California helped her overcome a crowded list of contenders.
“I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate,” Biden wrote in a tweet [on August 11 2020].
As most voters were aware, Harris and Biden’s partnership took place months after Harris concluded her own bid for the Democratic nomination in 2020. In December 2019, Harris officially dropped out of the race.
Harris’ campaign concluded before COVID-19 hit, and before another event that shaped the trajectory of the Democratic primary. In early March 2020, a number of Biden’s challengers exited the race essentially en masse and just before Super Tuesday — in part due to the “black swan” pandemic:
Just ahead of the single most important day of the Democratic primary [on March 3 2020], former Vice President Joe Biden picked up the endorsements of two former rivals.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who ended his own White House bid [a few days earlier], appeared with Biden at a barbecue restaurant in Dallas [on March 2 2020].
“I am delighted to endorse and support Joe Biden for president,” Buttigieg said. Biden, 77, said Buttigieg, 38, reminded him of his late son, Beau.
Earlier [on March 2 2020], Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced she is suspending her presidential campaign and would endorse Biden.
It would be easy for voters to remember the concurrent campaign conclusions of candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg and presume that Harris dropped out at the same time, but she actually had already left the race months before their exits.
When Masks Became Commonplace During the Pandemic
On first glance, it also might seem like an image of a smiling Harris alongside former rival Biden would intuitively be captured after Biden selected Harris as his running mate.
Based on that inference, it was reasonable to wonder why Harris and Biden would not only appear at a rally without protective masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also find it odd that not one member of the crowd brought or wore a mask. That was because the actual images were taken way, way earlier in the pandemic — before people started wearing masks.
On March 31 2020, we did a fact-check pertaining to changing guidance regarding the use of face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, public health experts were just starting to revise guidance. Originally, the CDC and WHO sought to limit the use of masks outside of medical settings, to prevent a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). But over the course of March 2020, those guidelines changed, and fabric masks quickly became the norm:
Mask use was not seamlessly integrated into the every life of the American public overnight. In fact, there was significant outcry — largely thanks to weaponized disinformation causing panics about purported problems with using them. On April 6 2020, we examined circulating posts about mask sanitization. At the time, people were just starting to adopt the use of masks to prevent the spread of the virus:
As late as May 29 2020, news outlets were covering shifts among members of the public and the ideal protocol for wearing masks.
The Rally and the Photographs
Again, it was reasonable to assume that the images in the set of Harris and Biden were taken after the August 11 2020 announcement the two would share a ticket in the November 2020 election — after all, Biden and Harris clasped and raised their hands together, in what appeared to be a celebratory pose.
But that was not the case. The photographs of Biden and Harris, were published on March 10 2020 and captured on March 9 2020 by an Associated Press photographer. A caption for one of the images explained:
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., from left, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and Sen. Cory Booker D-N.J. greet the crowd during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit on [March 9 2020]. (Paul Sancya/AP)
As such, the photographs depicted a rally in Detroit on March 9 2020, and were taken before the public began wearing masks — by several weeks.
Images purportedly depicting presidential candidate Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris at a rally where neither they nor the crowd used masks was framed as hypocritical, occurring after months of public dispute over the use of masks and other COVID-19 pandemic-related changes to daily life. However, the photographs were taken on March 9 2020, weeks before Americans were advised to wear masks in public situations.